I can’t believe that my 3 1/2 weeks in India has come to an end. I have learned more than I could have ever imagined when I first arrived. India turned out to be so much more than I imagined. A growing country that is both tradional and modern at the same time. An ancient culture that is dynamic but struggling with many challenges because of its large population, lack of adequate infracture, changes in the social dynamic from the caste system that has been overthrown, lack of adequate education for its poorest citizens, and the complex role of women in the society.
I found that the two most important India values which I greatly admired were the value placed on education and the role of family. These I believe are India’s greatest strengths and will help them to continue to grow into one of the worlds great powers. They will also have to deal with some of the challenges we have in the US with providing equal opportunity and access to good education to everyone so that they can continue to grow the middle class. I traveled to 5 cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, and Kolkata) and got to see many different aspects of the Indian experience. I met some rich, many poor and plenty of people in the middle class. I have gone into some of the worst slums in the world and seen unimagineable wealth. What made the greatest impression on me was the stark difference in how the different classes lived but in spite of their circumstances the dignity in which everyone carried themselves.
The parents who lived in the slums truly understood that education was the only way for their children to move out of poverty and that lesson was being taught in every slum that I visited. The greatest discovery I made was that the majority of the people living in the slums were employed and many worked 12 hours a day/7 days a week but they were paid so little due to their lack of skills and literacy that it was difficult for them to sustain themselves and their families. I also discovered that one of the reasons that India traditionally had not provided a social safety net was because many Indians lived in joint families with multiple generations and the expectation was that families would take care of each other. The reality is that many families are unable or unwilling to provide for their extended family members and the government is creating numerous initiatives to deal with the numerous problems that arise from poverty like food insecurity, mother and infant deaths due to poor nutrition, providing education, quotos to provide opportunities to those in the scheduled castes for jobs and university admissions, and lastly dealing with negative impacts on women.
I found women’s role in India to be complex and sometimes distrubing. I was impressed with the number of smart, strong, educated women that I met regardless of their social economic status but there are also many challenges that some women in India face. The expectation for many women in India is that you will be married and have children and that is where your status in society is derived from. Many women rule the home sometimes with an iron fist but if there is an issue with a husband or children it is seen as being the fault of the woman and negative reflects on her being a competent wife and mother. Being single, divorced, or widowed can make you a target because you may not be under the protection of a male who can “Protect” you. The joint family can be a benefit because you have family to help you but it can also be difficult because you may lack standing in your own home and if there is a conflict, decisions may be made for you by your husband or mother-in-law. For many families this arrangement works quite well but in some cases women have been abused and even killed. Dowry deaths still occur and the importance of male children has lead to infanticide of girl children and a ban on ultra sound for the use of determining the sex of a baby. Many of these negative things are in direct contrast to the law school and business school that I spoke at which had significant representaion of women students. I believe that these young women are the future of the country and that changes are happening quite rapidly. The government has also committed to having 1/3 of its legislatures represented by women and these kinds of changes and opportunitiess will no doubt have an immense impact on the role of women in this society. Most importantly the government’s commitment to education with give opportunities to millions of girls.
I was honored to have been given this opportunity to travel to India as an Eisenhower Fellow and it is an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I believe that it has given me greater respect and appreciation for other cultures. It is a challenge to go and observe how other people live without imposing your own cultural experiences and expectations onto the situation, but what this experience has taught me is that things are more complex than they appear on the surface and understanding the context of what you are seeing is equally important if you are going to accurately access what you are witnessing.
I hope you will follow me as I continue my journey to New Zealand to look at policies related to poverty and the challenges that occur when providing a social safety net.